Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages

Poetry, Public Performance, and the Presentation of the Past

Samer M. Ali

Poetics of Orality and Literacy

Arabic literary salons emerged in ninth-century Iraq and, by the tenth, were flourishing in Baghdad and other urban centers. In an age before broadcast media and classroom education, salons were the primary source of entertainment and escape for middle and upper ranking members of society, serving also as a space and means for educating the young. Although salons relied on a culture of oral performance from memory, scholars of Arabic literature have focused almost exclusively on the written dimensions of the tradition.

That emphasis, argues Samer Ali, has neglected the interplay of oral and written, as well as of religious and secular knowledge in salon society, and the surprising ways in which these seemingly discrete categories blurred in the lived experience of participants. Looking at the period from 500 to 1250 A.D., and using methods from European medieval studies, folklore, and cultural anthropology, Ali interprets Arabic manuscripts in order to answer fundamental questions about literary salons as a social institution. He identifies salons not only as sites for socializing and educating, but as loci for performing literature and oral history; for creating and transmitting cultural identity; and for continually reinterpreting the past.

A fascinating recovery of a key element of humanistic culture, Ali’s work will encourage a recasting of our understanding of verbal art, cultural memory, and daily life in medieval Arab culture.

Samer M. Ali is associate professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages is a unique contribution to understanding how poetry and literature were received in medieval Islam. By brilliantly situating salons both in the context of their predecessors and in comparable European and Persian traditions, Ali shows how the mujalasat tradition shaped, and was shaped by, people from all ages and walks of life. His careful study makes this tradition, with its vibrant performative dimension, come to life for a contemporary audience.”—Dale F. Eickelman, Dartmouth College

“Samer Ali has written a wonderful, very accessible book that addresses important aesthetic phenomena of the Arab Middle Ages, especially those emanating from the heart of the Abbasid Empire. A major contribution is his inclusion of new or barely considered manuscript material as well as discussion of the social dynamics of everyday life in the Arab Middle East and North Africa, little known by most westerners.”—Sabra Webber, Ohio State University


“Ali provides a compelling analysis of the role Arabic literary salons played in developing historical narrative and interpreting tradition in the Islamic Middle Ages. The author approaches key literary texts of the Abbasid period as dynamic rhetorical articulations rotated and rehearsed in the salons. Advanced scholars will benefit from Ali’s interdisciplinary approach and from his refreshing reading of al-Buhturi’s poems.” — Choice

“The book . . . is about the power of poetry as illustrated by events, and accounts of a particular event. It also looks at the interplay between prose and poetry in classical Arabic literary culture. Furthermore, it contributes to the long-standing debate between historians and historians of literature about how best to select and utilize material which is branded as literary for the purpose of reconstructing the past. Finally, it discusses in detail some third/ninth century poetry . . . This book has the great merit of stressing an aspect of Arabic literary culture which modern scholarship tends to disregard, and will be thought-provoking to many readers.” — The Medieval Review

“Samer Ali has written a book that is sure to spur enthusiasm for the study of Arabic literature even among the most die-hard non-Arabists. . . . In comparing medieval literary salons to their ancient Greek and Middle Eastern precursors, he explains their influence on politics, social class, gender dynamics, religion, and—of course—the presumed connection between good manners _ and literature _(ababiyyat).”Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies

“Samer M. Ali’s book Arabic Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages traces the growth and spread of literary salons, or the mujalasat, from the pre-Islamic Middle East through the Abbasid Caliphate and beyond. . . . Highly recommended for anyone interested in this time period, Arabic literature’s development and history, the relationship of Islam to the development of the arts, and in reading a general historical book. It is certain to be an important part of medieval Middle Eastern studies and the development of academic interest and scholarship in this time period and region.” — Journal of Folklore Research

“Within the increasing movement in late classical and medieval studies to focus on orality and its role in textual, cultural, and historical development, Samer Ali’s volume on medieval Arabic literary salons, the mujasala, is a welcome addition . . . . This volume takes a much-needed step towards the understanding and accessibility of medieval Arabic literary culture for medieval scholars in all fields.” — Parergon

“Literary salons, known as the mujalasat, provided a social context for the performance and cultivation of Arabic poetry in Abbasid society and in later times. Samer Ali examines their origins, functions, and impact during the period when these social practices were first established in Iraq before spreading to Andalusian Spain and North Africa.” — Medium Aevum